Pros: Graphic and unsettling account of racial injustice suffered by Canada's Aboriginal peoples
Cons: Plot occasionally contrived, sometimes awkward style
Beatrice Culleton's In Search of April Raintree was first published by a Winnipeg company in 1983. This sad fictional story has achieved minor classic status in Canada for its honest portrayal of Aboriginal life. Though hardly a flawless piece of writing, in this case function trumps fashion--perhaps more than any scholarly work, the fictional life of April has brought to "mainstream" Canada a sense of the issues facing our First Nations peoples and hopefully, a redemptive sense of shame.
April, a young Metis girl, ages about 20 to 25 years through the novel, and over this time period she faces a number of difficult situations. She becomes a foster child at a young age and is seperated from her sister. At the worst home, she is little better than a slave, despised as a "half-breed" and kept only for the government support checks that accompany her.
A bright student, April eventually grows up and becomes an independent woman, but sacrifices her heritage in the process. Her skin is much fairer than that of her younger sister, Cheryl, and unlike Cheryl, who is proud of her Aboriginal ancestry, she decides to masquerade as "white". A marriage to a very rich Toronto businessman quickly ends, not only because he is having an affair but because she suspects he married her only to anger his WASP mother; despite her best efforts, she is unable to escape the associations of her race. Her relationship with Cheryl becomes confusing after the younger woman discovers their parents were alcoholics. April, to spare her grief, had told her that their parents "got sick" and couldn't take care of them. This revelation leads to the "bad girl" behaviour that a racist social worker earlier characterized as "native girl syndrome"--drinking, doing drugs, having promiscuous sex, and even getting involved in crime.
The centerpiece of the novel is a graphic scene involving April and several attackers. In emotionally cold yet disturbing langauge, April narrates this horrific event as she is brutally gang-raped. The scene is more than simply an example of the danger many Aboriginal women are subject to--it represents the rape of an entire people through Canadian policy. The plight of Canada's aboriginals is nothing new: ghettoized in reserves with soaring crime, abuse, poverty and suicide rates, many go through life feeling that they have no chance.
After the rape, events become harsher and sadder, leading to an occurence that wraps the story up in a way both tragic and hopeful. April begins to embrace her identity and takes steps toward rebuilding her life. But the problems raised throughout the story are far from improved in Canada today.
This book has served as a primer on one of Canada's most embarrassing issues: the plight of our country's original inhabitants. Through it, much of a generation has been exposed to "the other side" of the story, and hopefully brought one step further from the quietly racist attitudes that many Canadians still hold.
As I said earlier, this is not a flawlessly written book, although the author has gone on record as saying she was striving not for stylistic perfection but an honest voice. Still, I find sentences like "I spotted a parking spot" a bit jarring. The flow of the work is not perfect, with a slight awkwardness in sentence pacing that is hard to precisely explain.
In addition, some plot points seem contrived, mainly involving April's romances. It seems odd that a rich visiting businessman would suddenly fall in love with a secretary and marry her in a whirlwind of passion, even if he is "faking" to annoy his controlling mother. It seems odder still that April would suddenly find out that a person she found intensely irritating for years simply "had a crush" on her the whole time and didn't know how to properly express it...especially odd behaviour from someone who later becomes the perfect Romeo (this character, Roger, has been described critically as a "Harlequin romance figure"). But these stylistic issues should not detract from the incredibly powerful content of the book.
In Search of April Raintree tells an essential story that is true to life in many ways, and it has drawn attention to Aboriginal issues in a publicly accessible way. This edition of the book, in fact, includes nine critical essays on various aspects of the work (each an interesting and illuminating read), something your average Tom Clancy novel is unlikely to boast. For anyone who wants a fuller picture of Canada, this is essential reading.